UK Parliament Human Rights Committee shines spotlight on erosion of HK freedom

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FCO Six Monthly Reports inadequate for protection of freedoms of people in Hong Kong, says UK Parliament Human Rights Committee, as UK government signals openness to inclusion of human rights clause in UK-HK future trade agreement

On 12 March 2019, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on the human rights protections in the United Kingdom’s international agreements.

The report (paragraph 73) says that the publication of Foreign and Commonwealth Office 6-monthly reports appears insufficient for the adequate protection of the basic freedoms of people in Hong Kong:

“Although the UK Government undertakes a 6-monthly report on the implementation of the Agreement, this does not seem to be resulting in adequate maintenance of the required freedoms for people in Hong Kong. Indeed, in its submission Hong Kong Watch stated “it looks likely that in the coming years things will only worsen.””

The report also reveals that the UK government is open to the idea of the inclusion of a human rights clause in a future UK-Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement. Responding to calls from Fiona Bruce MP for the inclusion of a human rights clause, the report reveals that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister for Human Rights, wrote to the Committee on 5 February to say:

“…there is continued pressure on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and on the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Joint Declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law. We have raised publicly our concerns about recent developments, which call into question Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy…

The UK’s exit from the EU provides us with an opportunity to explore how we can most appropriately use free trade agreements to pursue broader international objectives… The Government is exploring all options in the design of future trade and investment agreements, including relevant human rights provisions within these.”

The report references written evidence provided by Hong Kong Watch on 9 separate occasions, as well as submissions from the Hong Kong UPR Coalition, the Progressive Lawyers Group, Hong Kong 2020, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Civic Party, Emily Lau, and Mr Ted Hui Chi-fung.

It notes concerns of “breaches of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and media, freedom of assembly and association, academic freedom, the prevention of democratically elected representatives from taking their seats, extrajudicial abductions, rule of law, interferences in business activities and clamp-downs on political speech and human rights defenders.”

It continues to highlight that the UK’s failure to guarantee the rights enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration: “…highlights the difficulties of enforcing human rights protections even in an agreement which contains specific reference to human rights.”

It subsequently cites a range of civil society proposals including calls from “several Hong Kong-related submissions [who] suggested that in future, trade agreements should include “essential elements” clauses requiring respect for international human rights protections and should also ensure that there were strong enforcement mechanisms for such clauses.”, and calls for the Foreign Secretary to report regularly to Parliament on how the human rights protections in such agreements were working in practice.

The Human Rights Committee made two key recommendations relating to Hong Kong. First, the report called for the government to take action, saying: “the Government should undertake a review of the measures available to it to take action where human rights protections are not respected in practice. Where such human rights protections are not so respected, as reported to the Committee with reference to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Government should then take such measures as are appropriate.”

In addition, the report calls for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to follow up the inquiry further: “We note that the Foreign Affairs Committee is currently inquiring into China and the International Rules Based System. We hope that that Committee will address this issue and that the evidence we have received will provide further background for their consideration of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Benedict Rogers, Chairman of Hong Kong Watch, said: “We welcome this report, the attention it gives to the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy and the recommendations it makes. We also support calls for human rights provisions in a future trade agreement with Hong Kong. We urge the British government to take the findings and recommendations of this report seriously, and to act to strengthen its voice in defence of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy, in accordance with its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

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